Planners propose stricter rules on long-term motel stays

Costa Mesa city planners voted this week to recommend stricter standards for long-term occupancies at nearly all city motels, a move that affordable housing advocates warned will harm those who rely on the properties as a last stop before homelessness.

The Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 on Monday, with Commissioner Robert Dickson absent, in favor of the ordinance that would force Costa Mesa's motels to seek a new permit if they want to continue having long-term tenants.

To receive the permit, a motel must meet certain requirements, including having 75 rooms or more, fireproof safety-deposit boxes, daily maid service, kitchenettes and onsite laundry facilities for customers. City code enforcement and county health inspectors would be responsible for overseeing the standards.

The ordinance also stipulates that rooms for long-term tenants be at least 375 square feet. Critics say most motels don't have such relatively spacious units and would have to undertake major remodeling to create them.

Current city code allows, without a special permit, all but one motel to use up to 25% of its rooms for long-term use, defined as 28 consecutive days or 28 days within a 60-day period. The Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Harbor Boulevard is the exception; it is permitted up to 40%.

The commission's recommendation would slightly change the definition of "long term" to 30 consecutive days or 30 days within a 60-day period.

City officials say they crafted Costa Mesa's standards based on those in Buena Park, which has been effective in enforcing them.

Existing long-term motel tenants would be grandfathered in under the old requirements to avoid losing their housing, city officials said.

Commissioner Colin McCarthy said the changes are not about the city excluding the poor or turning its back on affordable housing. Rather, he said, it's about setting livable standards at motels, some of which have deplorable conditions and have been targeted by city code enforcement for various health and safety violations.

"If you want to be a business owner in this city, and you want to profit off of these people, you need to meet certain minimum standards," McCarthy said. "I don't think that the standards that have been enunciated by our staff are that onerous."

Added Commissioner Jeff Mathews: "How do you eliminate slums? You set standards and you make changes. If you don't, you keep the slums."

Kathy Esfahani, a member of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition, said that while motel rooms are not ideal family housing, they fill a need in a city that lacks sufficient affordable-housing options.

"It is irresponsible for the city to remove that housing source for people who need it," she said.

The city's changes will result in more homeless people, Esfahani contended.

"They will end up in the parks," she said. "They will end up in the streets."

Commissioner Tim Sesler said motel rooms, some charging $1,500 to $1,900 a month for only a few hundred square feet, do not meet most people's definitions of affordable housing.

Mike Lin, owner of the Sandpiper Motel on Newport Boulevard — which recently saw its permit changed to further limit long-term tenants — said it's not a motel owner's decision whether a guest stays for long periods or not.

Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick was critical of the "28-day shuffle" by some motel operators, whereby they force motel guests out after 28 days to avoid them gaining tenants' rights, then allow them back in after a few days. He added that Costa Mesa should not have the burden of providing much of Orange County's services and resources for the poor.

Rather, Fitzpatrick said, the city should be taking care of its own residents and their families, not those from other cities.

The long-term stay ordinance next faces a City Council vote, though a hearing date has not yet been scheduled.